Sport is a truly global phenomenon.
The many tentacled reach of football and athletics – in particular – to every island, forest, desert, mountain range and urban sprawl on the planet is both proof of their enduring appeal and a fantastic jumping off point for an article so long and excruciating that even the most hardened Nerdius fan will be rather happy when it’s all over. I know I was when I finished writing it.
Take the Premier League.
At the time of writing 109 of the 207 FIFA recognised countries have been represented. Some have sent a huge cohort over to England for differing, but obvious reasons: Belgium (proximity), Brazil (wealth of talent), Australia (grandparents from Salford and Colchester). Some nations have only ever had one player in the Premier League, but they still make the list.
Obviously you’d like to see that list, so here it is:
- Albania 🇦🇱
- Angola 🇦🇴
- Armenia 🇦🇲
- Burkina Faso 🇧🇫
- Central African Republic 🇨🇫
- Faroe Islands 🇫🇴
- Gambia 🇬🇲
- Gibraltar 🇬🇮
- Guinea-Bissau 🇬🇼
- Kenya 🇰🇪
- Kosovo 🇽🇰
- Malta 🇲🇹
- Oman 🇴🇲
- Pakistan 🇵🇰
- Phillipines 🇵🇭
- Seychelles 🇸🇨
Trailblazers one and all (though you’ll have to find out *who* those players are under your own steam, and there’s no points for getting Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Victor Wanyama without Googling of course, not around here).
Some sports however are dominated by just a handful of nations. This usually emerges where history meets slightly complicated rules or requirements. It’s harder after all to gather the various accoutrements needed for a good game of snooker (“What do you mean you haven’t got a spider Derek?!”) than it is to find a field to run around in.
Below is an exploration of those sports with limited range to see if we can find a comprehensive answer to the following questions: “If I only have space for ONE scarf supporting one nation team and designed clearly for use while cheering on one sport, then what will give me the most value in terms of consistently being on the winning side”
Or, to put it another way: is there any country that completely and utterly dominates one sport?
- Rugby? Cricket? Obviously neither, but I’ve gone hardcore on the workings anyway.
- American sports? Not really, I mean three of them have been Olympic Sports, but I’ve added some colour.
- British sports? You know, ones that don’t involve breaking a sweat. Bit closer, but not that close.
- Other sports that actually answer the question? Yes. These indeed answer the question (so you may as well just scroll through to the end, unless you want to see A LOT of flag emoji).
Ready? *Whistle sound effect*
The Empire Games
Let’s start with two high-profile sports for those of us born into a world reported by the BBC and characterised by a physical inability to jump a queue. With their first internationals taking place in 1871 and 1844 respectively Rugby Union (we’ll get to Rugby League in the detail) and Cricket are sports steeped in history. History that relies on what we’ll call the ‘ups and downs’ of the British Empire as it swept across the world doing unspeakable things, growing tea and finding countries to be much better at sports than the people who invented them, but history nonetheless.
We’ll kick off (pun very much intended) with Rugby Union because it’s where rugby started (on that note the story about William Webb-Ellis picking the ball in a game of football at Rugby school and inventing the game is hardly cast iron – it always struck me as a weird origin story anyway), but that hasn’t stopped the World Cup in the sport being named after him. But before we get to the World Cup breakdown, let’s explore the dual axes of power in the world of scrums and gum shields…
The Six Nations: England 🏴, Scotland 🏴, Wales 🏴, Ireland 🇮🇪(technical flag inaccuracy, but, emoji), France 🇫🇷and, the upgrade from the long standing Five Nations, Italy 🇮🇹.
The Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri Nations who, of course, spent many years as the most pun worthy major sporting event on the planet): Australia 🇦🇺, New Zealand 🇳🇿, South Africa 🇿🇦, Argentina 🇦🇷.
There are in this elite group a total of 10 teams, nine of whom – sorry Italy – are (a few caveats aside) the teams perennially in the mix. They are joined, to some extent, by the Pacific Island nations of Fiji 🇫🇯, Samoa 🇼🇸 and Tonga 🇹🇴, and indeed between these 12 teams (i.e. The Six Nations minus Italy plus The Rugby Championship plus The Pacific Islands) they have filled all but one of the 64 berths that have been available in the QFs of the Rugby World Cup since it’s inception (the other place went to Canada way back in 1991).
At the sharp end however, not even all of these nations have every really had a serious chance of winning the Webb Ellis Trophy with eight of these teams making up all semi-final appearances and just five of them – New Zealand 🇳🇿, Australia 🇦🇺, England 🏴, South Africa 🇿🇦 and France 🇫🇷 – taking up 27 out of 32 of those berths and contesting all finals. Even a casual fan is aware that few teams have a realistic opportunity to take on 15 New Zealanders with egg-shaped ball in hand.
That all said, there is one area of Rugby that isn’t Kiwi heaven (well, not exclusively, they’re still incredibly successful) and that’s Rugby Sevens. In the short form, sped up version many of the games experts hail from the Pacific Islands . Fiji 🇫🇯won their first ever Olympic medal as a nation when Rugby Sevens was admitted to the 2016 event in Rio roundly beating all opposition. Historically Fiji and New Zealand battle it out at the top of the Sevens tree, but England, South Africa, Samoa and, in a positive blip to be fair, Wales have taken top honours in major tournaments. There is also the notable addition of Kenya 🇰🇪in the Sevens game scrapping around making life difficult for the bigger teams. But that’s it, aside from the usual suspects.
A final word then on all things Rugby Union can be reserved for Georgia 🇬🇪and Japan 🇯🇵, two teams on the up. This year’s World Cup is in Japan, who are if not knocking on the door of the ‘big 9’, certainly making good strides across the front garden. The same can be said about Georgia. Indeed, their world ranking is well above Italy’s at the time of writing and has been for a while. To some that would make a fair shout for their inclusion in the Six Nations ahead of the Italians and maybe, just maybe, things will continue to the point where the Six Nations needs to offer a relegation/promotion system for last place (Spain, Russia and Romania would be other contenders seeking that spot over the long haul). Meanwhile Japan have had their own team, the Sunwolves, in the Super Rugby competition (featuring teams from the Rugby Championship countries) since 2016, a sure step forward for a country that defeated South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World cup and will hope to show the world they can compete at the top end consistently as they host the good and great to knock-on simple balls and get covered in mud.
BUT HOLD ON… WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN?!
An excellent point and one we shouldn’t overlook, not least because we’re not sexist dinosaurs, but also because the likelihood of finding intense domination by one country in a sport is statistically more likely in women’s tournaments given their relative youth. Woke and wily. Check it.
The Women’s Rugby World Cup has been dominated over the years by two teams, New Zealand 🇳🇿 (who have won five of the eight editions), and England 🏴 who have made all but one final, though only won twice. The first winner, back in 1991 was the USA 🇺🇸 – a newbie on the scene for this article – with Canada 🇨🇦and France 🇫🇷(who have come 3rd six times!) also showing well.
Proving however that what the men do, doesn’t always follow when it comes to the women, we must give a nod to the Kazakhstan 🇰🇿 team who have attended the World Cup on 6 occasions, just missing making the QFs each time.
AND YOU SAID WE’D TALK ABOUT RUGBY LEAGUE WHAT ABOUT RUGBY LEAGUE?
Yes. We’re doing that now. Chill.
Rugby League originated in 1895 as the ‘professional’ code of rugby meaning, quite simply, that players could be paid. It took until August 1995 for Rugby Union to follow suit. League is particularly popular in the North of England (where it was founded), parts of Australia 🇦🇺, New Zealand 🇳🇿and France 🇫🇷and also in Lebanon 🇱🇧. Rugby League is the national sport, nonetheless, of Papua New Guinea 🇵🇬. It’s also played in pockets of all the usual countries mentioned above.
At World Cup level three teams have won the championship since it started in 1954 and on all but four occasions the winner has been Australia 🇦🇺. In 2008 New Zealand 🇳🇿took the title and on three occasions prior to 1972 Great Britain 🇬🇧took the honours (since 2005 the home nations – England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland – have competed separately with Great Britain as a team retired in 2008 with the hope if improving the results of the individual nations. GB will return for a tour of the Southern Hemisphere in 2019 however after several years of reform rumours. Think of them like a 90s boyband).
So with the exception of PNG 🇵🇬and the brilliantly exotic Lebanon 🇱🇧we’re looking at the same simple, but still a little bloated for my liking, list of countries. There’s domination, but it’s not all conquering.
In the Women’s tournament, which has been held since 2000, we again see dominance from New Zealand 🇳🇿, so much so that they’ve featured in every final winning three and losing three. Which is weird, since there’s only been five. In 2005 two teams from New Zealand were entered; ‘New Zealand’, and ‘New Zealand Maori’, with the former trotting out 58-0 winners. Added extras who’ve not made the word count yet keep us in the deep Pacific: The Cook Islands 🇨🇰, Niue 🇳🇺and Tokelau 🇹🇰.
But really now, with 1200 words on Rugby alone, we must move on…
There are twelve test playing cricket nations. Which means, essentially, that there are twelve ‘proper’ places were they play cricket. Twelve isn’t many. They are, in order of their gaining test status: England 🏴(1877), Australia 🇦🇺(1877), South Africa 🇿🇦 (1889), West Indies 🏝(1928), New Zealand 🇳🇿(1930), India 🇮🇳(1932), Pakistan 🇵🇰(1952), Sri Lanka 🇱🇰(1982), Zimbabwe 🇿🇼 (1992), Bangladesh 🇧🇩(2000), Ireland 🇮🇪(2018) and Afghanistan 🇦🇫(2018). Which is also to say that until the 21st Century only nine countries were allowed to play ‘proper’ cricket.
Test cricket however is not the only cricket. It’s simply hardcore cricket, and there is of course a version for people who just want to have fun (i.e. ‘lightweights’). The ICC Cricket World Cup is therefore instead based on the One Day International format of the sport. 20 teams have competed since it was first held in 1975. The extras are…
- Bermuda 🇧🇲
- Canada 🇨🇦
- East Africa 🏳
- Kenya 🇰🇪
- Namibia 🇳🇦
- Netherlands 🇳🇱
- Scotland 🏴
- UAE 🇦🇪
These 20 however are not the only 20. There are a total of 105 countries where cricket is well established enough to have a membership body of some sort (12 test nations plus 93 associate members). Of these countries five have managed to win the World Cup (25% of those who’ve competed, just under 5% of the total). For comparison 8 out of 79 teams have won the FIFA World Cup from a total pool of 211 eligible teams (10% and around 4%). Which is interesting in as much as the figures aren’t *that* different.
So is cricket the over-localised sport we’re here to salivate over? Kinda. But we can do better.
But before we move on, a final bit of cricket/country based knowledge for you. Above we mentioned that the first international in the sport took place in 1844. Who was it between? Canada 🇨🇦and the USA 🇺🇸. The first mentions of one of those nations in this section. Oh the irony (and thus, so deliciously English).
The women’s World Cup, in a notable parallel with what we saw in Rugby above features similar teams with a bit more dominance. Of the 11 tournaments so far, 10/11 have been won by either England 🏴or Australia 🇦🇺. In 2000 New Zealand took home the trophy. Until then they’d been 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd. More recently things have been shaken up a little by India, South Africa and the West Indies, but it’s hardly a confusing slate of cricketing nations.
Dominance indeed, but it’s not quite perfect so we must move on…
* * * * *
The great/weird (depending on your outlook) thing about American sports is that while they are insanely popular across the 50 states, they are, to a greater and lesser extent, often ignored elsewhere. This is less true of Ice Hockey which is hugely popular in Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and Central Europe, while Basketball can claim popularity on a casual and less casual basis in many countries, if not powerhouse leagues worth all the 💰💰💰. And while baseball has its World Series (we’ll get to that) it’s played in even fewer places than its long distant cousin cricket. As for American Football? The clue’s in the name.
Baseball’s premier competition is, of course, The World Series a competition played between Major League Baseball teams from the USA (plus the Blue Jays, from Toronto). In fact, it’s all about the USA (apart from the Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos who upped and moved to Washington in 2005 to be closer to everyone else). So why’s it called the World Series? Well, in 1903 the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates – winners of National League – wrote to the owner of the Boston Red Sox – winners of the American League – to suggest a ‘World’s Championship Series’. And the name stuck. And why are there two leagues in Major League Baseball? Let’s worry about that another time.
But despite being played almost exclusively in just 18 US States plus Ontario, Canada (great stat for you there) 27% of Major League Baseball players are foreign born. So is there an appetite out in the rest of the world?
Since its founding in 2006 20x teams have taken part in the World Baseball Classic, the real ‘world championships’ of the game. In addition, baseball featured at the 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics and will return in 2020 in Tokyo. The Olympics featured eight teams on each occasion. In terms of success it’s the Cubans 🇨🇺(3 Olympic golds and two silvers) who were dominant on the world stage, while Japan 🇯🇵 (2 World Classics for the men, 6 for the women), Puerto Rico 🇵🇷, Dominican Republic 🇩🇴, Australia 🇦🇺and South Korea 🇰🇷 are a bit handy too. Surprisingly, or not really, the USA 🇺🇸have only featured intermittently on this world stage, but of course that’s because the best players are paid far too much to drag themselves off to represent their country against Venezuela 🇻🇪or the Netherlands 🇳🇱for a mere metal necklace.
So while it’s basically all American, this is not the dominance we’re after.
Basketball is the most globally popular of the American sports. It has been an Olympic sport since 1936 (and was a demonstration sport in 1904) and 16 different countries have medalled at the FIBA World Cup in the men’s event, with 17 medalling in the women’s. Although, to rewind a moment, the USA have medalled at every Olympics except 1980, when the whole US team boycotted, and have won Gold in all but three of the men’s tournaments and all but two of the women’s. So that’s pretty dominant. But given the existence of professional basketball leagues and teams in Spain 🇪🇸, Germany 🇩🇪, Italy 🇮🇹, Russia 🇷🇺, Turkey 🇹🇷, France🇫🇷, Lithuania 🇱🇹, Greece 🇬🇷, Australia🇦🇺 and China 🇨🇳 it’s fair to say it’s not a one nation sport. And while you might get pretty excellent value from your Team USA scarf, we’re going to keep going.
Ice Hockey 🏒
Ice Hockey isn’t played everywhere because it needs ice and the equator laughs in the face of ice. But we’re back in Rugby and Cricket territory here really with a handful of usual suspects (Canada 🇨🇦, USA 🇺🇸, Russia 🇷🇺, Sweden 🇸🇪, Finland 🇫🇮, Czech Republic 🇨🇿 – in that order) taking the vast majority of place on the Olympic podium and World Championships medal table for both men and women (with notable additions for Switzerland 🇨🇭, Slovakia 🇸🇰 and the German 🇩🇪 men’s team’s Olympic Odyssey in 2018).
So no (d)ice here.
American Football 🏈
The Americans LOVE their version of football.
Most of the biggest stadiums on the planet were built with a gridiron on the pitch (and the very biggest are not for professional teams but for College teams, eight in total with a capacity of over 100,000 – when I was at University there was one football pitch and that was often used to store random outdoor furniture). But does anyone else? Well, kinda yeah, kinda no.
Japan 🇯🇵have won 2x IFAF World Cups (1999 and 2003 when the US didn’t take part) and picked up a podium place in every tournament since. Not many countries can muster a national team, but the 2015 version did attract European frontrunners Germany 🇩🇪, Austria 🇦🇹, Sweden 🇸🇪 and France 🇫🇷 as well as the US 🇺🇸, Canada 🇨🇦, Mexico 🇲🇽 (who are a bit handy), Brazil 🇧🇷, South Korea 🇰🇷, Japan 🇯🇵, Australia 🇦🇺 and Morocco 🇲🇦 (qualification happened by region as you can probably tell).
Nobody comes close to the USA for strength or, indeed, popularity. The overwhelming majority of players at the top of the game are American and the top teams are all fighting it out in the NFL. But like baseball and basketball the dominance kind of works against them as they don’t always bother to properly turn up to beat the rest of the world as it’s not really the point.
So don’t go knitting that USA scarf quite yet…
But hold on, what about other footballs? It goes to follow that if you name a brand of football after yourself and make sure it doesn’t get too popular, then nobody else is going to play it.
- Gaelic football is very Irish 🇮🇪(and one of the world’s few staunchly amateur sports). Australian Rules football is very Australian 🇦🇺(and only played professionally in Australia). BUT, the two can be combined under a code known as International or Compromise Rules when the top Gaelic teams play the top Australian teams. And so, by definition, the purity of the game in one nation is sullied. But oh so close. This dual-axis is further cemented by the Papua New Guinea, Irish, New Zealand dominance of the Australian Football International Cup
- Canadian football is very Canadian 🇨🇦, though the top competition, the Grey Cup, was once won by the Baltimore Stallions who were involved during a brief American expansion during the 90s. So we’re very very close again, but not quite. And there isn’t an international competition anyway.
The Best of British
The World Snooker Championship has been held 84 times. In that time it has been won on 4 occasions by non-Brits: an Irishman 🇮🇪, a Canadian 🇨🇦 and two Australians 🇦🇺. New Zealand 🇳🇿, South Africa 🇿🇦 and, in a buck from British Colonialism, China 🇨🇳 have also been represented in the final. The women’s game can add a champion for Hong Kong 🇭🇰 and an Indian 🇮🇳 finalist.
It’s as close as a ball hanging over the pocket, but it’s not quite going to drop.
Since 1978, across both the BDO and PDC World Championships, the men’s title has been a good clutch of Dutch 🇳🇱, an Australian 🇦🇺, a couple of Canadians 🇨🇦 and A LOT of Brits. The women’s game has reached the powers of Russia 🇷🇺 and the USA 🇺🇸as well. But it’s mainly the St George’s cross flying.
The World Indoor Bowls Championship has returned a Scottish 🏴or English 🏴winner in 69% of all championships (men’s, women’s, team) competed for since 1979. Of the rest, the majority have been won by the Welsh 🏴, Northern Irish (emoji says 🙅♀️) or a few plucky souls from Guernsey, Australia 🇦🇺and New Zealand 🇳🇿sent the balance.
Close, but jack all here.
Onward. (and, at last, a straight answer).
The All-Conquering Heroes
There’s a good list of every single World Championships (and similar) in sport on Wikipedia and I’ve looked through it so you don’t have to.
Floorball is a perennial toss up between Sweden 🇸🇪and Finland 🇫🇮(though the Swiss women play their part), Ringette between Canada 🇨🇦and Finland 🇫🇮(what is it about the Finns, they LOVE an odd sport), Lacrosse by the USA 🇺🇸and Canada 🇨🇦, Padel between Argentina 🇦🇷and Spain 🇪🇸, Bandy between Sweden 🇸🇪and Russia 🇷🇺. And while Brazil 🇧🇷dominate at Beach Soccer, Australia 🇦🇺netball, the Dutch 🇳🇱the long track and the South Koreans 🇰🇷the short track in speed skating, Polo is the domain of the South American trio of Brazil 🇧🇷, Chile 🇨🇱and Argentina 🇦🇷and plenty more besides… in each of these others always get a look in.
Below are the sports in which the world champions have only ever come from one nation and so are vying for that single scarf berth.
- Kabaddi, India 🇮🇳have won every single World Cup in both the Standard and Circle style. That’s 13x victories across men’s and women’s competitions. CLEAN SWEEP.
- Indoor Lacrosse can go one better though with the same winner, runner-up and bronze medallist in each of the four global competitions held so far: Canada 🇨🇦🥇, Iriquois 🥈, USA 🥉.
- Tchoukball, For the women, a victory: every single world tournament has been won by the Chinese women 🇨🇳, and all bar two by the Chinese men. (the 1970 and 2004 World Tchoukball championships were won by the French 🇫🇷and the Swiss 🇨🇭respectively).
And that’s it.
So take your pick. But as well as your one and only scarf, you’re probably going to need a rule book (although, fun fact, we used to do Kabaddi in PE lessons at my school in Glasgow which is very much not in India, so you never know where there could be potential future shoots of growth).